Herewith, a miscellany of vaguely interrelated wine items, served at room temperature, built up in bits and pieces over the past few weeks until they have burst forth as this loose baggy monster of a post, which launches itself with a few words from Evelyn Waugh:
When wine is truly corky, the cork is diseased and foul smelling, and the wine is more or less tainted. It should never be drunk in this condition... It is for this reason that a small quantity of wine is invariably poured first into the host's glass for him to taste... If the host is so barbarous as to taste and accept a corky wine, all that the guest can do is to refrain from drinking it and
never come to that table again.
[from Wine in Peace and War (1949); quotation via the obsessed and seemingly inexhaustible Corkwatch.]
- Desperately Seeking Closure: Real corks -- the type that are made from the bark of the Cork Oak (quercus suber) -- still hold their own as a method of sealing up a bottle of wine, but they have an ever-growing corps of detractors. A certain irreducible percentage of natural corks -- estimates range anywhere from 1% to 15% to 20%(!), and there is informed speculation that the number has been increasing in recent years -- will produce the unpleasant "musty wet dog" aromas and flavors of "corked" wine, the wicked handiwork of the chemical 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or "TCA". The condition only manifests itself after the wine has been bottled, and no reliable method has been developed to detect and eliminate those particular corks that will be found, too late, to have been little ticking TCA-bombs.
Various alternatives to cork-made-from-cork have been trotted out. Synthetic "corks" are popular with the marketing department because they can be produced in a rainbow of colors or elaborately imprinted to coordinate effectively with the rest of the wine's packaging. They also provide no growth medium for those pesky TCA-generating spores. Synthetic corks have their detractors, however, including those who claim they don't allow aging, or alternatively allow wine to age too quickly. Even some environmentalists object to them, as they are not biodegradable. (Natural cork degrades when disposed of, though it takes a long long time to do so.)
In the southern hemisphere, the screwcap has been increasingly favored as a cork-free method for sealing wine bottles. James Halliday, writing in The Australian, reported earlier this month that
[a]nyone wanting to verify the mass migration to screwcap in Australia should simply walk into any large retail shop and see for themselves; 70 per cent of the white wines on display will have screwcaps, and up to 40 per cent of the reds likewise. Repeat the exercise in a month's time, and the percentages will have increased.
That comment appears in an article triggered by publication of Taming the Screw (right), a 304-page book devoted entirely to the subject of screwcaps and their use with wine.
- Not to be left behind, New Zealand has also embraced the screwcap: The first International Screwcap Symposium took place in Blenheim, Marlborough, New Zealand, this past November.
- Fresh from his own recent trip to Austreyelia, UCLA Law's own Professor Bainbridge recently declared that "Screwcaps rule." [The professor also recently held forth on the cork-spoiled wine problem in response to a cranky winemaker.]
- Anecdotal Evidence from the IPNC: On July 31, we had the pleasure of attending the afternoon tasting appended to the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon. The Celebration itself runs for three days, concluding on Sunday morning. For those who did not attend the event in its entirety, the 60 participating winemaker pour samples from two vintages (this year it was 2002 and 2003) over the course of four hours on Sunday afternoon in the Eucalyptus Grove on the campus of Linfield College. Some years, it rains; some years -- this one, for example -- it is sunny and more than slightly hot. In all years, the selection of pinot noirs from around the world is worth the trip.
- This was a big year for pinot noir, of course, still basking in the attention drawn to it by the movie Sideways. The film's director, Alexander Payne, was to have been the keynote speaker at this year's IPNC, and to have MC'd the Sunday tasting, but he canceled his appearance. This MSNBC report gives a good idea of the event, and includes the intriguing statistic that despite pinot noir's heightened profile this past year, it still accounts for a mere 1.6% of the U.S. table wine market.
New Zealand has become well known for sauvignon blanc, but it is also proving to be a fine place to grow pinot noir. Six New Zealand wineries were represented at the Celebration this year -- six-and-a-half when you include Gary Andrus' new Gypsy Dancer Estates winery, which produces pinot from both Oregon and New Zealand and which was pouring a delicious example of the latter -- and all of their wines were sealed with screwcaps.
An intriguing show of mixed feelings toward screwcaps came from the very French winemakers of Oregon's WillaKenzie Estate Winery, who were pouring their lovely 2002 'Pierre Leon' Pinot Noir from a twist-capped bottle. WillaKenzie is now making many of its wines available with a choice of closures: screwcap or natural cork. One of the winemakers was heard to remark that given the choice he would seal everything with screwcaps, but that WillaKenzie WillaContinue [ho ho] to use corks for the time being because there are still too many people who simply will not buy the wine without the 'traditional' closure.
- Enfer Trade Practices: The screwcap item above from Professor Bainbridge ties into some reported remarks on the topic by Randall Grahm of California's Bonny Doon Vineyard, who now seals all of his wines with screwcaps and has gone so far as to proclaim the Death of the Cork. Grahm holds forth at length here with at least 20 reasons to cast aside both the natural cork and its synthetic contemporary cousins.
And with that, we leave at last the subject of wine bottle closures, but not the subject of Randall Grahm and Bonny Doon. To continue:
Among his many other activities, Mr. Grahm produces newsletters for his winery that are replete with erudition, philosophy and the sorts of pun that demonstrate much too much education on the part of their creator. Reading a Bonny Doon newsletter, you are just as likely to encounter a Kierkegaard joke as you are a discussion of malolactic fermentation or some obscure grape variety. (Anyone thirsty for a little Uva di Troia?)
In the most recent edition, he has outdone himself, combining a fondness for Dante Alighieri with a scorn for current winemaking practice to produce the fiery pseudo-terza rima of Part 1 of Al Dente Allegory's spirited epic, Da Vino Commedia: The Vinferno [PDF], in which wicked winemakers who over-oak, over-process or otherwise warp or deracinate the grapes in their care receive the cosmic comeuppance they deserve.
In this first episode, our hero finds himself in a dark wood, beset by doubts concerning winemaking philosophy and technique. An immortal Burgundian guide is sent to show him through the circles of winemaking perdition. They pass through the gates ["ABANDON ALL OAK, YE WHO ENTER HERE"] and encounter the mediocrities, the producers of "wines neither so great nor so wretched/Provoking nothing but yawns," swigging Red Bicyclette whilst surrounded by the symbols of mass production: a Little Penguin, the Yellow Tail kangaroo, an enormous rooster (in Italian, Gallo), the goat from Le Vielle Ferme and, inexplicably, the moose shown at left. (The illustrations, by Alex Gross, are a treat in themselves.)
The barrel-chested boatman Char-on ferries the travelers to the first Circle, reserved to The Unrated: those great winemakers, like Dante's Virtuous Pagans, whose great wines were made in the era pre-dating the Wine Spectator and Robert Parker. Here, they encounter the likes of the Veuve Clicquot, Jacob Schram, Gustave Niebaum, and a "squat beetle-browed figure, puffing mightily," the incomparable André Tchelistcheff (right).
What lies ahead in future episodes can be gleaned from the helpful map provided as a frontispiece: special circles and torments are reserved for such offenders as Espousers of 'Gracious Living,' Wine Consultants, Wine Conglomerates, and The Manufacturers of Natural Cork and Synthetic Cork-Like Closures, as well as "The Vine-olent" against the grape, against wine consumers ("over-pricers, producers of overly alcoholic, over-oaked, over-extracted wines, . . . Merlot mongers," etc.), and against Bacchus.
- No need to travel to the stygian depths to encounter these viticultural sinners. As Tom Wark regularly demonstrates at Fermentations: They Walk Among Us.
- Postscript -- Some Political Wine Gossip: Fermentations also reports in a recent post that one of the Napa Valley's newest winery owners is House Democratic Whip and noted Woman of the People, Nancy Pelosi. She has not stated a position in the cork vs. screwcap debate, so far as I know.